New Jersey’s census response rate is 3.4% behind its 2010 level – not bad for a pandemic, but still increasing the risk of an undercount that could cost the state federal funds or even a seat in Congress.

Expect a blitz of census publicity in the coming days, as "Faith Weekend" will be followed by "Push Week" and the start of door-to-door census taking at nearly 1.4 million New Jersey addresses that haven’t yet answered the survey.

Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said it’s “crunch time.”

“Going from 64% to 66% as a statewide rate would be enormous in terms of how much more accurate the overall count is going to be,” Chen said. “So every miniscule percentage point matters.”

The latest numbers show 64.3% of New Jersey households have responded to the census. That hasn’t changed much in weeks, though it usually does once census takers start going door-to-door and people would rather go online or on their phone than answer the door to talk with a stranger.

Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald Rios said an undercount sets off a chain reaction of negative consequences for schools, businesses, hospitals and the most vulnerable.

“We have less than a hundred days to correct the course of our census response rate, and this needs to be our No. 1 priority, along with the safety of our residents,” Rios said.

Jeff Behler, regional director for the Census Bureau, said the response has been “amazing” and beaten expectations, considering the coronavirus disruptions and fear. He said COVID-19 will make door-to-door canvassing a challenge – but that people can still avoid a visit.

“If you don’t want someone knocking on your door, please go online. Use your smartphone. Use a tablet. Go to Call one of our toll-free telephone numbers,” Behler said.

Census takers will start visiting homes in Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties next week as the 2020 population count enters its next phase.

Houses that haven’t answered the census will be visited a few times, with notes left at doors where nobody answers to encourage people to complete the census online. If that doesn’t work, a census taker will ask neighbors. If all else fails, the government imputes the count based on other sources of data.

The dip in participation hasn’t been even across the state – with those needing the most help not taking part.

Response ranges from over 70% in Hunterdon, Morris, Burlington, Somerset and Bergen counties to 30% in Cape May County, where many people whose residences are second homes don’t respond. Response rates are also in the mid-50s in Essex, Atlantic and Hudson counties.

At the municipal level, nearly 88% of residences in Glen Rock in Bergen County have responded to the census. Another 35% municipalities also have response rates of 80% or higher. Excluding Shore towns made of many second homes, where in the most extreme cases response rates are still under 10%, the lowest rates include 41% in New Brunswick, 41% in Atlantic City, 43% in Trenton and 45% in Newark.

Data scientist Andrew Whitby, author of a book about the census, said suburban areas that usually respond well to the census have been minimally affected, only a point or two below 2010.

“While those who are typically harder to count, such as people in urban areas, have proved even more elusive than usual,” Whitby said. “So in other words, I think the COVID-19 effect has been to exacerbate the pre-existing inequalities.”

Patricia Williamson, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s New Jersey Counts project, said completing the census and voting are high on her group’s list of ways to do racial justice advocacy.

“Black lives matter means black lives count,” Williamson said.

Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex, said a lot is riding on an accurate tabulation – from federal funds to seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“At one point, we had 15 congressional seats. Today we are at 12. And we are at a huge risk of losing another seat,” Lopez said.

New Jersey lost House seats after the 1980, 1990 and 2010 census. Projections show New Jersey will remain at 12 – though an Election Data Services analysis shows that 12th seat could be lost if the state’s population is 166,000 less than projected.

Chen says immigrants not legally in the country are required to cooperate with the census, despite President Donald Trump saying this week said he wants them excluded from apportionment counts used to distribute House of Representatives seats. Even if that stands up in court, it doesn’t change the total count.

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